Ted Nugent image by Mike Licht
Racism has long bubbled quietly beneath the surface of America’s gun rights movement, even as its well-heeled leaders have wrapped themselves in the cloak of respectability. White Supremacists and neo-Nazis openly hostile to blacks, Jews, and other minorities continue to appear in public at gun rights rallies. But the National Rifle Association, in particular, has long held openly racist groups at arm's length from their conservative but still very much mainstream political organization.
Yesterday longtime NRA board member Ted Nugent went further into racist territory than any previous NRA director—including himself. Nugent posted a graphic on his Facebook page featuring photos of Jewish-American leaders who have spoken out in support of gun violence prevention. The accompanying text states that Jews are “really behind gun control” and that they “really hate freedom.” Within hours the Anti-Defamation League denounced Nugent saying that “anti-Semitism has no place in the gun control debate.”
At the root of Nugent’s Facebook post is the notion that gun control can lead to tyranny, if not genocide, as Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson posited in his book and on the campaign trail last year. Other Republican candidates including Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have made similar statements. But claiming that gun control could lead to genocide is still not the same as claiming that Jewish-American leaders are supporting gun control to take away Americans’ rights as part of some absurd racist plot, as Nugent—an NRA board director for the past 20 years—has suggested.
How will the NRA respond to Nugent’s rant? The NRA’s polished leadership, based just outside the Washington beltway in Virginia, has long walked a fine line between extremism and respectability. NRA leaders have tried to mollify gun rights absolutists, including the racist extremists in the base, while maintaining the mainstream respectability that continues to make the NRA America’s most powerful single-issue lobbying organization. To hold this balance, NRA leaders, some of whom could teach Karl Rove the finer points of deflective communication, say different things in public to mainstream audiences than they do behind closed doors.
A more timely question is how the field of Republican presidential candidates—all of whom have made statements sympathetic to the NRA and gun rights—will respond. What will they say when asked if the NRA should remove Ted Nugent from its board? At least one gun control group is already demanding the NRA board remove Nugent, although, to be fair, the same group has made the same demand before. Nugent once called the late Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot in 2012 in Florida by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, a “dope-smoking, racist gangsta wannabe.”
Nugent may be a has-been performer in today’s music charts, but he remains a favorite son of influential Republicans. In 2013, Texas Republican Congressman Steve Stockman invited Nugent to come to Washington to attend President Obama’s State of the Union Address. The 67-year-old rocker, an avid gun owner and hunter, enjoys support among conservatives even though he once told High Times and later the Detroit Free Press how he took crystal meth, defecated on himself, and stopped bathing or brushing his teeth for weeks to fool his local draft board into relieving him of military service in Vietnam. He also told them how he often slept with underage girls while on tour with his band.
Nugent’s social media post yesterday, however, crossed a line, even for him.
“Know these punks. They hate freedom, they hate good over evil, they would deny us the basic right to defense & to KEEP & BEAR ARMS,” he wrote. Beneath his words is a square image with individual photos of twelve Jewish-American figures including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senators Diane Feinstein, Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer, Richard Blumenthal and Carl Levin, former Obama aide and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, each emblazoned with the Israeli flag.
Within hours the New York Daily News wrote a brief online piece protesting the post. Nugent soon fired back: “Just when you hope that mankind coudnt (sic) possibly get any dumber or more dishonest, superFreaks rise to the occasion. What sort of racist prejudiced POS could possibly not know that Jews for guncontrol are nazis in disguise?”
Nugent then made another Facebook post, this time of a late 1930s-era photo of German Nazis rounding up Jews showing one man wearing a Star of David. Beneath the image were the words: ‘Back when I learned about the Holocaust in school, I remember thinking, “How did Hitler get MILLIONS of people to follow along blindly and NOT fight back? Then I realized I am watching my fellow Americans take the same path.”
Images and texts like these—claiming that the Holocaust was the result of gun control—circulate widely on social media among gun rights absolutists and so-called Second Amendment advocates. To make sure Nugent’s 2.7 million Facebook followers got his point, Nugent wrote himself in the same post: “Soulless sheep to slaughter. Not me.”
Among the Republican Presidential candidates, Ben Carson has claimed that gun control in Nazi Germany helped produce the Holocaust. In his book, A More Perfect Union, Carson wrote that “German citizens were disarmed by their government in the late 1930s, and by the mid-1940s Hitler’s regime had mercilessly slaughtered six million Jews and others whom they considered inferior.”
Carson repeated this claim in October as he was running for President in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer, and then again a few weeks later in a speech at the National Press Club. Other Presidential candidates in both major parties chose not to weigh in at the time. But Alan E. Steinweis, a University of Vermont professor of history and Holocaust studies, debunked his claims in a New York Times op-ed.
“Mr. Carson’s argument,” wrote Steinweis, “is strangely ahistorical, a classic instance of injecting an issue that is important in our place and time into an historical situation where it was not seen as important. I can think of no serious work of scholarship on the Nazi dictatorship or on the causes of the Holocaust in which Nazi gun control measures feature as a significant factor. Neither does gun control figure in the collective historical memory of any group that was targeted by the Nazi regime, be they Jews, Gypsies, the disabled, gay people or Poles. It is simply a non-issue.”
Neither the NRA, nor its paid stable of legal scholars—whose undisclosed NRA financing I have documented here and one of whom, David Kopel, recently appeared on NPR’s Diane Rehm show talking about gun issues without disclosing his NRA funding—have since weighed either in support of Dr. Carson, or to challenge Dr. Steinweis.
But that didn’t stop NRA board director Nugent from going ahead and putting forth the theory again. After all, such unsubstantiated claims thrive in Twitter posts with hashtags including #NRA #2A (Second Amendment) #TCOT (Top Conservatives on Twitter) and “Molon Labe.” The term Molon Labe derives from the Greco-Persian wars of 480 B.C. and means “come and take them” or, what in contemporary NRA vernacular might be more like: “If you want to take my gun, you’ll have try pry it from my cold, dead hands.”
What motivated Ted Nugent to make such an unambiguously racist post now is unclear. He could not be reached for comment. On his Facebook page I queried him: “Ted, So why are you raising the sheep to the slaughter issue now? Do you know something we don't?” Although he "liked" my comment, he hasn’t responded further.
One cannot help but wonder if he may have been influenced by some of the rhetoric used by candidates in the current Presidential campaign. After the terrorist attacks last fall in Paris, Donald Trump suggested that they were the result of France’s relatively strict gun control policies—policies that are similar to those in every other Western European nation. The French ambassador Gerardo Araud responded to Trump’s remarks on Twitter: “This message is repugnant in its lack of any human decency. Vulture.”
Nugent endorsed Trump's candidacy this past fall.
One of Trump's challengers, Ted Cruz recently echoed a similar theme: “The right to self-defense is an essential component of the liberty we enjoy as Americans and is embodied in the Second Amendment.” The Canadian-born Texas senator’s view is shared by many American gun rights advocates. But whether gun control itself can lead to tyranny, or a genocide like the Holocaust, as Nugent just claimed, is a question that neither Trump nor Cruz has yet to address.
Ted Nugent’s statements may seem extreme to outsiders, but they reflect gospel truth within the gun rights absolutist community. The community even includes a few Jewish-Americans. “The founder of Jews For the Preservation of Firearms Ownership called me his 2nd Amendment/Freedom hero,” Nugent wrote yesterday on Facebook. The founder of this Jewish, pro-gun group, Aaron Zelman, passed away in 2010. He was a longtime friend of the NRA. I once heard him speak behind closed doors in Minneapolis at a 1994 NRA board meeting—one year before Ted Nugent was elected to the NRA board. Zelman made the claim then that Nugent made today—that the Holocaust resulted from gun control. He received enthusiastic applause from about 75 listening NRA directors.
But NRA leaders—for decades—have been far more circumspect in public. In 2012, NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre addressed a Small Arms panel at the United Nations in New York, and unequivocally explained the real purpose, in his view, of the right to bear arms.
“Our Second Amendment is freedom’s most valuable, most cherished, most irreplaceable idea. History proves it. When you ignore the right of good people to own firearms to protect their freedom, you become the enablers of future tyrants whose regimes will destroy millions and millions of defenseless lives,” he said. The statement remains posted on the NRA lobbying wing’s website.
But less than a year later, when pressed on this point by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in response to the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the NRA leader chose more guarded language.
Sen. Durbin asked LaPierre point blank about the purpose behind the Second Amendment, saying his own constituents who are NRA members have said it’s not just about hunting, shooting targets, or even defense against criminals, telling the senator: “We need the firepower and the ability to protect ourselves from our government—from our government, from the police—if they knock on our doors and we need to fight back.”
It seemed like the perfect opportunity for the NRA leader to lay out how the NRA cherishes the Second Amendment for its defense of freedom. But LaPierre, in a far milder tone that he used at the United Nations in New York seven months before, gave a far more subdued answer on camera in Washington:
“Senator, I think that without a doubt, if you look at why our founding fathers put it there, they had lived under the tyranny of King George and they wanted to make sure that these free people in this new country would never be subjugated again,” said LaPierre.
But in today’s world, the NRA leader went on, the Second Amendment remains “relevant and essential” for other reasons. People fear “being abandoned by their government. If a tornado hits, if a hurricane hits, if a riot occurs that they’re gonna be out there alone. And the only way they’re gonna protect themself (sic) in the cold and the dark, when they’re vulnerable is with a firearm.”
Ted Nugent is one NRA leader who has never been guarded in his talk about the Second Amendment which, in his view, is still all about the right to not only bear arms, but to bear them against the government when and if needed to prevent tyranny. If recent Twitter posts are any indication, many NRA advocates agree with him. “Ted Nugent is right!” reads one such post that included a news headline, “Jewish groups push for action on gun control.”
So what does the NRA think about Ted Nugent’s claim that Jewish-Americans who support gun control are really Nazis in disguise trying to disarm Americans to impose tyranny? This is one question to ask NRA leaders like LaPierre. Another is, should the NRA remove Nugent from its board?
The same questions should be put to Presidential candidates starting with Carson, Trump, and Cruz.
Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has written about the National Rifle Association for The Progressive, The Village Voice, The Washington Post, Mother Jones and MSNBC.com.